Review | Battling Boy, Paul Pope

BattlingBoyAIn this graphic novel by Paul Pope, monsters run rampant through Arcopolis, eating the children, and the city’s hero Haggard West has been killed. Enter twelve year old demigod Battling Boy who, along with Haggard West’s sidekick and daughter Aurora, rises up to save Arcopolis.

Battling Boy is a fast paced, exciting coming of age superhero story. The young demigod is kicked out of his home to prove himself in a rite of passage that will make him a hero. Armed with the ability to harness animal powers depending on the shirt he’s wearing, Battling Boy has to defeat the Arcopolis monsters and save the city’s children in order to earn the status of adulthood and the respect of his father, a very Thor-like figure. The story hints at a far richer mythology behind that rite — perhaps even more challenges after the monsters are defeated, and sets the stage for what could be a pretty epic series.

The coming of age element is prominent — in his first battle, Battling Boy is unable to think quick enough to win on his own and has to call his father for help. His father, battling his own monster on another planet helps him out but then warns him not to call for help again. In a clear allegory for the moment young adults face when beginning to feel the demands of adulthood, Battling Boy must face the realization that his father will not always be there, and that he must learn to face his monsters alone. Pope takes this to the next level when local politicians begin using Battling Boy as a figurehead, and the demigod must learn about the hypocrisy and compromises that also constitute the adult world.

Along with the coming of age is an interesting twist on the Chosen One mythology — Battling Boy is certainly a “Chosen One” from the point of view of the city he has to save, yet from his family’s point of view, he is merely fulfilling one task among many. He is not necessarily the only one who can stop the monsters in Arcopolis — Aurora certainly looks like a more than capable hero on her own — yet he still has a mission he needs to fulfill.

Aurora’s story seems more the typical origin tale — grieving over her father’s death and desiring to avenge him and continue his work, she uses his arsenal to take over his role. I actually find her more intriguing than Battling Boy, and part of me wishes the book were about her instead. She isn’t a demigod; she’s an ordinary human girl who had been trained by her father to protect the city, and who now feels the burden of fighting on without him. While this is a task that will prepare Battling Boy for a lifetime of such missions, this is Aurora’s whole world, and so her stake in it feels much more personal and immediate.

Paul Pope is known for his frenetic artwork and action-packed storytelling, and Battling Boy certainly fits into that mold. It’s a fun, fast-paced superhero story, and a start to an exciting series.

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Thank you to Raincoast Books for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Blue is the Warmest Colour, Julie Maroh

9781551525143_BlueIsTheWarmestColorJulie Maroh’s Blue is the Warmest Colour is a sensitive, beautifully illustrated lesbian coming out story set in France in the 1990s. High school junior Clementine falls in love with Emma, a punkish, confident girl with blue hair. We know from the first page that the story won’t end well — the novel begins with Emma visiting Clementine’s parents after Clementine’s death. As we later then view their relationship unfold through Clementine’s journals, there is a bittersweet tinge throughout. We see Clementine’s first, confused, feelings of sexual attraction, and we see Emma’s reading and responding to these words.

Their romance is itself rather bittersweet. Emma has a jealous girlfriend at the time, and Clementine has been drilled to believe that homosexuality is wrong. And even when Clementine feels ready to take the plunge, Emma is hesitant to risk it. The conservatism of Clementine’s family takes a disheartening turn, and the story leaps forward several years, presenting a rather bleak picture that sadly feels realistic. The ending felt rather unnecessarily dramatic, but the rest of the story is told with such subtlety and grace that the novel as a whole is still really strong.

Maroh’s storytelling is subtle and her illustrations graceful and lovingly rendered. Even her sexually explicit scenes are more about making love than having sex. Her decision to render everything in shades of gray with accents of blue gives the story a dreamy feel; the treatment almost feels like music.

In a Q&A with the publisher, Maroh points out that even though the book is first set in 1994, the climate for queer youth in France still hasn’t improved much. She says, “The best thing this book could do is help queer youth, somewhere, somehow.” Indeed.

The live-action French film version of this novel was the winner of the Palme D’or at Cannes 2013. It will be released in North America in Fall 2013 through Sundance Selects/IFC Films (USA) and Mongrel Media (Canada). Given how musical the story felt even on the page, I can’t wait to see it translated on the screen.

International trailer with English subtitles below:

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Thank you to Arsenal Pulp Press for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Calling Dr. Laura, Nicole Georges

When Nicole Georges visits a psychic for her twenty-third birthday, she finds out that the father she’s always believed to be dead is actually alive. Now, having grown up in a family of secrets and lies, Nicole considers the need to confront her mother about two things: the identity of her father, and the fact that Nicole is gay. The back blurb compares Nicole Georges’ Calling Dr. Laura to Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, and while Georges lacks Bechdel’s sly humour, she also doesn’t get bogged down by Bechdel’s philosophizing. The result is a straightforward, rather earnest, heartfelt narrative.

Georges highlights the difference between her adult life and her childhood memories through her drawings — her life in her twenties is sketched with realistic detail, while her flashbacks to her childhood are sketched in simple, stylized shapes such as a child might draw. This shift in style highlights the child Nicole’s innocence, and thereby emphasizes the pain such a figure must undergo, watching her mother being abused by various husbands. I especially love Georges’ use of this technique in a scene where the adult Nicole has a particularly devastating piece of information confirmed, and the character shifts back to the child version for two panels, before shifting back to adult mode.

The Dr. Laura in the title actually plays less of a role in the narrative than I expected. Pressured by her girlfriend to confront her mother, Nicole finally calls Dr. Laura Schlessinger for advice. The author has included bits from the actual transcript of their conversation in the memoir, and while the radio personality seemed harsh, it seemed to be the tough love Nicole needed.

Georges does a good job illustrating the atmosphere of stress and deceit in which she grew up. She relates incidents such as stress-related bowel irregularities that lead to an embarrassing situation with a friend, conspiring with her mother to skip school as long as her stepfather never found out, and having to call 911 when her stepfather tried to strangle her mother. As she later points out, even whens he discovered her biological father was still alive, her experience with fathers hasn’t given her much incentive to find him. She struggles not just with the fear of confronting her mother, which comes hand in hand with her coming out to her mother as well, but also with the fear of meeting her biological father. The simplicity of Georges’ narrative enhances the emotional impact of her decisions; she is thoughtful without becoming too introspective. While her tone felt at times too flippant, it’s an understandable way to cope with her fear, and adds realism to her narrative.

Calling Dr. Laura is a touching tale of growing up, of coming out and of trying to make sense of one’s family. The biggest emotional wallop is reserved for the end of the book. Like the rest of the book, it is heartfelt but rendered with understated precision. It’s telling that Nicole feels most free to talk about her concerns over the phone with a radio personality or over email with loved ones. The medium provides a comfortable layer of protection, yet what comes through most strongly is Nicole’s vulnerability. Calling Dr. Laura is a sweet, simple story, surprising in how much it can reveal through so little. Well done.

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Thank you to Thomas Allen Ltd for an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.